The cathedral as guarantee of the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church

By Ryan Mayer

Director of Office of Catholic Identity Formation & Assessment, Archdiocese of San Francisco

In a letter to the local church community at Smyrna penned in the year before his death, the early second-century martyr St. Ignatius of Antioch writes, “Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude (of the people) also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”

The public practice of Christianity was not legal in the Roman Empire until Constantine’s Edict of Milan in the year A.D. 313, more than 200 years after St. Ignatius faced the wild beasts of the Flavian Amphitheater, now known as the Colosseum. There were no cathedrals or basilicas for the first few centuries of Christianity. The Roman skyline was not dotted with the steeples and domes of Christian places of worship such as we are used to seeing today in modern cities. How to know, then, that the Church had a presence in a particular place? How to identify the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic faith in one’s backyard?

For the earliest Christians, it was the presence of the bishop that was the sign of the presence of the Catholic (universal) Church in their midst. In fact, the above-quoted letter of St. Ignatius to the church at Smyrna is the first recorded use of the term “catholic,” from the Greek “katholikos,” meaning universal or “through the whole,” to describe the Church. The bishop as successor to the apostles was a community’s link to the apostles and therefore the local church’s only guarantee of apostolic authenticity, of right worship in the sacraments and, therefore, of its link to Jesus Christ. What, we might ask, connects this or any particular church community to the universal Catholic Church? The presence of the bishop.

When cathedrals were built in the fourth century following the edict, they were built as visible signs of the presence of the bishop and so were called “cathedra,” from the Latin for “seat” or “throne,” because they were literally where the bishop sat when presiding over the liturgy. As such, each diocese and each bishop has only one cathedral church.

The image of the chair as an image of authority is an ancient one and even Jesus makes reference to the “chair (authority) of Moses” in chapter 23 of St. Matthew’s Gospel. On Feb. 22 each year, the Church celebrates the feast of the Chair of St. Peter. The point of the feast, of course, is not to celebrate a piece of furniture, but to observe the unity of the universal Church through Our Lord’s institution of the Petrine office. To quote St. Ambrose of Milan (339-397), “Ubi Petrus, ibi ergo ecclesia” (“where Peter is, there is the Church”). Each cathedral, like the bishop whose seat it is, is a link in a chain to the apostles themselves and therefore to Jesus Christ.

By and throughout the Middle Ages (what some modern skeptics erroneously call “the Dark Ages”), cathedrals were the beating heart of culture, tradition and civic life. Indeed, they were what Pope Benedict XVI called “the loftiest expressions of universal civilization … the true glory of the Christian Middle Ages.” Their construction was a work and prayer of the entire local church. The centers of learning that sprang up in cathedrals gave rise to what we know today as universities.

Archbishop Cordileone greets people after Mass. (Photo by Dennis Callahan/Archdiocese of San Francisco)

To return to St. Ignatius, his point is not really about the bishop. The church is not reducible to the local bishop, to be sure. He is not the church. Even less so is the church reducible to a particular building or structure (let alone a chair). However, the Catholic faith is an incarnational faith. The redeeming action of God happens in and through time.

“Tradition,” writes the Dominican theologian Aidan Nichols in The Shape of Catholic Theology: An Introduction to its Sources, Principles and History, “only comes to us in some form of concrete mediation.”1 In the case of cathedrals, like our own Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption, it comes via literal concrete–”heaven in glass and stone” (also the title of Bishop Robert Barron’s excellent book on the architecture of cathedrals, Heaven in Glass and Stone: The Spirituality of Gothic Cathedrals). “The proliferation of buildings,” continues Nichols, “should convey to us a vital point: the enormous theological importance of the historicity of the Gospel story. Jesus Christ is not an idea, a concept, an ideal, or simply a symbol of what God is like. He was and is a living person.”2

Even today, Jesus Christ at his first coming is not only linked to His Church by the accident of time or in some vague ethereal way. He is able to be present to His Church in every time and place in the sacraments–especially in the most Holy Eucharist–and in His people as a living body through the local bishop who carries in his episcopal office the guarantee of this link to the universal Church and to the apostles.

The cathedral is the beating heart of the local church. It is a guarantee of the very presence of right worship and of the unbroken line of authority and apostolic succession linking our Archbishop–and therefore each of us as the people of God– to the Twelve Apostles chosen by the Lord himself.

The cathedral is the sign and seat of the real presence of Jesus, right in our backyard. Wherever the cathedral is, to paraphrase St. Ignatius, there is the heart of the church. “The upward thrust [of medieval cathedrals]” said Pope Benedict XVI in a 2009 general audience, “was intended as an invitation to prayer and at the same time was itself a prayer.”3

Whenever our eyes are drawn to the heavens by the upward thrust of our own cathedral at 1111 Gough Street, may we pause in prayer and thanksgiving to God for the guarantee of the presence of his one, holy, catholic and apostolic church made concrete in the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption.

“Passerby, who is stirred to praise the beauty of these doors, do not let yourself be dazzled by the gold or by the magnificence, but rather by the painstaking work. Here a famous work shines out, but may heaven deign that this famous work that shines make spirits resplendent so that, with the luminous truth, they may walk toward the true light, where Christ is the true door.” (From an inscription on the doors of the basilica church of Saint-Denis in Paris)

1 See The Shape of Catholic Theology: An Introduction to its Sources, Principles, and History, (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991), 181.

2 See Nichols, 197.

3 See General Audience (18 November 2009).